School of Behavior Analysis

Teaching Skills to Children
with Autism and Related Disabilities

working with people with intellectual disabilitiesApplied Behavior Analysis (ABA) employs methods based on the scientific principles of behavior to teach new, socially significant skills and expand upon existing behavioral repertoires. When working with people with intellectual disabilities, ABA focuses on teaching new skills by breaking each skill into very small, discrete, and measurable tasks. Every skill an individual does not demonstrate, from simple skills such as making eye contact to complex behaviors like socially interacting with peers or making a meal independently, is broken down into multiple smaller tasks. Then each of those tasks is taught by first presenting a specific cue or instruction that initiates the response. This could be a verbal instruction or something in the environment that specifies what response should be emitted by the individual.  Second, the individual is prompted to emit the correct or desired response. Prompts are temporary and are meant to be faded as quickly as possible. Prompts can range from visual cues or signals to physically guiding the individual to perform the desired action. Finally, a relevant consequence is delivered contingent on the individual’s response. ABA focuses on the use of positive reinforcement to increase appropriate responding; thus, the focus is on providing preferred stimuli (toys, social attention, etc.) for appropriate responding rather than punishing incorrect or inappropriate responses.

What do Behavior Analysts do when
working with people with intellectual disabilities

It is important to note that a high priority goal of ABA when working with people with intellectual disabilities is to make learning fun by pairing learning with positive reinforcers. Another characteristic of ABA when it is applied to working with people with intellectual disabilities is the large number of learning opportunities implemented throughout a teaching session. Teaching trials may be repeated hundreds or even thousands of times throughout the day, and often each response is measured and evaluated to determine whether the individual is making progress toward his or her specific learning objectives. The data are then graphed to allow for a visual “picture” of the individual’s progress. Graphing these data enables the behavior analyst to adjust goals and teaching procedures if the individual is not making desired progress. Finally, to ensure the maintenance and generalization of new skills when working with people with intellectual disabilities, teaching trials are often initially taught in a very structured and discrete manner using what is called Discrete-Trial Training. Once the individual demonstrates acquisition of the emerging skill, it is the introduced and practiced in less structured and more naturalistic environments.  It is important to note that ABA is not the only approach to working with people with intellectual disabilities. Working with people with intellectual disabilities is just one area in which ABA has been shown to produce socially significant results. For more information on ABA as a treatment for autism and other intellectual disabilities, please visit The Scott Center for Autism Treatment’s website.